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Netanyahu Basks in US Congress Invitation, But May Shake US Ties

  • Reuters

FILE - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Dec. 14, 2014.

FILE - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Dec. 14, 2014.

Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to accept an invitation to address the U.S. Congress just days before Israel's parliamentary election offers him invaluable pre-vote publicity, but may also have shaken the balance of U.S.-Israel ties.

John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, issued the invitation without consulting the White House, a breach of protocol since it is normally up to a head of state to invite a foreign leader.

It also does not appear that Netanyahu, a right-winger who has a testy relationship with Barack Obama, let the president know about the invitation before accepting it, underscoring their increasingly tense ties.

The upshot is that Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress on March 3 — the third time he has had the honor — but will not meet Obama. He will also attend the policy conference of AIPAC, the influential pro-Israel lobby, a must for any Israeli leader.

From Netanyahu's point of view, he achieves several goals, strutting his stuff in front of an applauding Republican-led Congress two weeks before Israelis vote on March 17.

While that may not swing undecided voters, it is the sort of prime-time appearance that can shore up the base and help Netanyahu, currently neck-and-neck with his center-left rivals in most polls, pip the opposition on the day.

It also allows the prime minister, a staunch advocate of a tougher line against Iran, to beat that drum before a receptive audience and parade his credentials as a global security hawk, a message that plays well domestically.

Add the opportunity to sweeten his already close ties with the Republican leadership before next year's U.S. presidential election, and the bonus of an AIPAC gathering, and it looks like a very worthwhile trip.

Even the fact he will not meet Obama could play in his favor. While it is a snub, past meetings between the two have been frosty and made Netanyahu look awkward or defensive. With less than two years of Obama's presidency remaining, Netanyahu is hardly banking on rapprochement.

As his close confidant Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said last month: "This [U.S.] administration won't be around forever," suggesting Israel's leader is already looking to the next, possibly Republican, president for warmer ties.

Unprecedented rift

Yet while there may be good reasons for Netanyahu to go to Washington almost in spite of Obama — Israel's Haaretz newspaper quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying the Israeli leader had "spat" in the president's face — there are risks, too.

Obama's presidency may be waning, but two years is still a long time and he has shown a willingness to take bold decisions when the moment strikes, such as on Cuba and immigration.

The U.S. administration has repeatedly expressed frustration with the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Further steps in that direction could draw stronger U.S. responses, possibly in coordination with Europe.

More worrying, say Israeli commentators, is the way Netanyahu has buddied up to Republicans, creating a party political allegiance rather than one between two states.

"These relations are the greatest strategic asset that Israel has had since its establishment," former diplomat Alon Pinkas wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's leading daily.

"Netanyahu has harmed, weakened and finally destroyed the interpersonal channel [with the U.S. president] and created an unprecedented rift in the relations between president and prime minister."

For its part, the White House on Friday officially reiterated the American commitment to Israel's security. Spokesman Josh Earnest noted that Obama had spent more time talking to Netanyahu than any other world leader, indicating a clear national security interest within the U.S. alliance with Israel.

Also, Earnest noted that as a matter of principle, the president does not meet with heads of state in close proximity to their elections — a long-standing U.S. practice. Earnest said the White House does not want to give even the appearance of interfering or attempting to influence the outcome of a democratically held election in another country.

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